Radon emissions from natural gas power plants at The Pennsylvania State University

Alison G. Stidworthy, Kenneth J. Davis, Jeff Leavey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Burning natural gas in power plants may emit radon (222Rn) into the atmosphere. On the University Park campus of The Pennsylvania State University, atmospheric radon enhancements were measured and modeled in the vicinity of their two power plants. The three-part study first involved measuring ambient outdoor radon concentrations from August 2014 through January 2015 at four sites upwind and downwind of the power plants at distances ranging from 80 m to 310 m. For each plant, one site served as a background site, while three other sites measured radon concentration enhancements downwind. Second, the radon content of natural gas flowing into the power plant was measured, and third, a plume dispersion model was used to predict the radon concentrations downwind of the power plants. These predictions are compared to the measured downwind enhancements in radon to determine whether the observed radon concentration enhancements could be attributed to the power plants’ emissions. Atmospheric radon concentrations were consistently low as compared to the EPA action level of 148 Bq m−3, averaging 34.5 ± 2.7 Bq m−3 around the East Campus Steam Plant (ECSP) and 31.6 ± 2.7 Bq m−3 around the West Campus Steam Plant (WCSP). Significant concentrations of radon, ranging from 516 to 1,240 Bq m−3, were detected in the natural gas. The measured enhancements downwind of the ECSP averaged 6.2 Bq m−3 compared to modeled enhancements of 0.08 Bq m−3. Measured enhancements around the WCSP averaged −0.2 Bq m−3 compared to the modeled enhancements of 0.05 Bq m−3, which were not significant compared to observational error. The comparison of the measured to modeled downwind radon enhancements shows no correlation over time. The measurements of radon levels in the vicinity of the power plants appear to be unaffected by the emissions from the power plants. Implications: Radon measurements at sites surrounding power plants that utilize natural gas did not indicate that the radon concentrations originated from the plants’ emissions. There were elevated radon concentrations in the natural gas supply flowing into the power plants, but combustion dilution puts the concentration below EPA action levels coming out of the stack, so no hazardous levels were expected downwind. Power plant combustion of natural gas is not likely to pose a radiation health hazard unless very different gas radon concentrations or combustion dilution ratios are encountered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1141-1150
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the Air and Waste Management Association
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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